There is an oft-quoted maxim about referees in soccer games: Namely, if you haven’t noticed the referee during the game, then they have had a good performance. It’s hard to argue with that detail, but that’s a little easier said than done. More often than not, the referee is in the spotlight before, after and during the game. Even with the addition of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) to top-level soccer games, the ref’s job is not an easy one.
Soccer is the world’s most popular sport, and, understandably, fans are very passionate about it. Not only are the ref’s jobs tough on the pitch, but they face a huge amount of scrutiny off it. A few years ago, there was the infamous case of Swedish referee Anders Frisk. Considered one of the world’s best referees, Frisk received death threats after some poor calls in a Champions League game featuring Chelsea and Barcelona. The Swede retired from the game soon after.
So, what encourages men and women to take up the whistle? You’d have to say the underlying reason is a passion for the game. At amateur levels, referees only make a small amount of money – enough to cover travel expenses, perhaps. Obviously, a Premier League referee salary is going to be much higher, but nothing compared to what the top players earn.
Control and Flow Are Key Elements
But how do you get into that bracket of being a top referee? What are the qualities needed to be chosen to referee a World Cup Final or Champions League game? We mentioned earlier that commentators tend to congratulate referees when they have not been noticed, but there is a little more to it than that. Soccer is a complex game, and many things can happen that can be disastrous for a referee.
The first quality a referee needs is the ability to control a game. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the ref should constantly be blowing a whistle and handing out yellow cards. Control, in this sense, is about having the authority to let the game flow. The players need to understand that there will be consequences if they step out of line, and some referees can communicate that without a whistle. Theirs is nothing worse for fans than watching a game always interrupted by fouls and free-kicks.
Reaction to Poor Decisions Is Important
Clearly, a referee will also need to be accurate in decision-making. But even the world’s best – Daniel Osato, Martin Atkinson, Bjork Kuipers – make mistakes. It’s the reaction to making a mistake that is important. If a controversial decision has been made, passions rise on the pitch – something not helped by 1000s of screaming fans. And it’s at that point that the referee can lose control. This is the moment where a referee must exude that calm authority mentioned earlier and communicate to players that they still retain control.
Top referees, like the Premier League’s Mike Dean, have been accused of exacerbating those moments when tempers flare. Dean is actually a fine referee, but he has a penchant for the dramatic, and that might cost him the chance to be considered the very best in the world. It is not about positioning yourself in the middle of the action, but to calmly diffuse it. That takes experience and perhaps a sixth sense of knowing when to crack the whip and when to refrain. Nestor Pitana is good at this, as are Cuneyt Cakir, Anthony Taylor and Damir Skomina.
But, as mentioned, it’s an incredibly tough job, and one where you get little thanks. The referee gets noticed when things go wrong, but only very rarely do they get praised when things go right. To walk that fine line, you need mental toughness. Thankfully, incidents like the Anders Frisk one are very rare, but the verbal abuse referees receive means you have to be thick-skinned. As for the best of the best, they arguably deserve more respect for excelling at one of the toughest jobs in sport.